Prevention vs

By Chris Gonsalves  |  Posted 2008-01-02 Print this article Print

Colorado is the latest state to pull the plug on electronic voting machines due to accuracy and security concerns. Who's next?

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David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group that represents the major electronic voting system vendors, says at least some of the push back against the industry is being fueled by unrealistic expectations on the technology.

"No paper or previously used mechanical system would withstand the current level of scrutiny," Beirne says. "From an industry standpoint, product improvements are always a legitimate pursuit, but no one has quite come out and said this is what we want. Once everyone agrees that no system is 100 percent foolproof, including paper ballots, then we can have a reasonable dialogue as to the mitigating procedures than can be put into place.

"All voting systems rely upon a balance of prevention versus detection," Beirne adds. "Election officials work to develop prevention techniques prior to the election and post-election detection methods for use in an election contest. When taken together, these procedures and evidence validate the election. In many ways, this whole discussion mirrors that of voter identification and the perceptions over the need for it. For those who say, 'paper is what we want,' they do not realize that the Help America Vote Act has changed the demands and expectations of voting systems for providing disability access and greater usability for voters. The modern requirements for voting in the United States mean that you will always need something other than just a paper ballot in a polling location."

Beirne cautions that the states considering a return to paper so late in the election cycle may be setting themselves up for even more election-night headaches.

"To require wholesale changes for primary elections through March at this time is certainly rash and can potentially lead to unintended consequences of voter and poll worker confusion," says Beirne.

The warning aside, Beirne says vendors stand ready to do whatever the states ask of them to support upcoming elections. He also repeated his organization's call for national electronic voting standards. "At its core, the industry just wants to know what the requirements are for performance and security and will build the systems accordingly," he says. "Unfortunately, many of the stakeholders are too wrapped up in the requirements for how a system should appear rather than how a system should perform."

The EFF's Zimmerman says ultimately computers will have a place in America's elections, but that "people need a system that they believe in, not one that is being preached to them by the priesthood of technology."

Zimmerman says his organization favors hybrid "ballot marking" electronic voting systems that include a touch screen, but then print a paper ballot that can be reviewed by the voter before optical scanning.

"The most important part of all this is that the longer we wait, the more disillusioned people get in the process," Zimmerman says. "I'm more concerned that people are not trusting the system anymore. That's exactly what Help America Vote was supposed to be fighting. Whatever system is used, it must put the focus back on transparency and give the people elections they can really trust."


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